BELMONT • A life-altering experience Debra Newell had in 1999 changed many things in her life, including the way she cooks.

She had an acute case of pancreatitis that left her critically ill and in the hospital for 18 days. After she recovered, she had to totally change the way she ate.

“I fried a lot of food back then, but now we bake and grill everything,” she said. “We eat lean cuts of meat and lots of fish. We do a lot of oven-baked vegetables. That’s something I would have never done when I first married.”

Newell, 62, was born and raised in Booneville, the oldest of two girls born to Herbert and Jo Rene Ashmore. She and her sister started preparing meals as teenagers after their mom went to work outside the home.

“We always had a freezer full of food,” Newell said. “I can remember sitting down with a washtub of peas or butterbeans to shell or green beans to break. We lived next door to my grandmother and had aunts and uncles nearby and everybody had chickens. My sister and I would go from house to house, killing chickens for the freezer.”

Newell went to high school at New Site and got her bachelor’s degree from Ole Miss. A business major, she went straight into banking after college.

“I went to work at what is now Renasant Bank in Tupelo,” she said. “I spent a total of 21 years in banking.”

When the pancreatitis struck in 1999, she decided to change careers.

“I knew I needed to do something else,” she said. “The Lord led me in a different direction. I did the alternate route to become a teacher.”

Newell’s husband, Nick, was already a teacher and in fact, for many years while Newell was in banking, Nick would get home before her and get dinner started.

“I enjoy cooking so much more now than I did when our kids were little,” she said. “Sometimes, I’d have to cook two or three different things for them to find something they liked.”

Newell started her teaching career at Belmont Middle School before moving to the high school. She retired last December with 20 years in the system.

She cooks several times a week now, and all the meals are healthy. She might bake chicken breasts and serve them with creamed sweet potatoes butterpeas and a Waldorf salad, or grill a pork tenderloin with potato salad and baked beans.

“I like to try new things, but my husband is a better judge of a recipe that will be good for us,” she said. “I’m not one to cook a recipe that has a lot of ingredients and a lot of steps. And I don’t like cookbooks that have ingredients we can’t find around here. I like local cookbooks.”

COCONUT CREAM PIE

CRUST

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup vegetable shortening

3 tablespoons ice water

FILLING

1/3 cup flour, any type

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups milk, scalded

3 egg yolks

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups coconut

MERINGUE

3 egg whites

6 tablespoons sugar

Coconut for sprinkling

For the crust, mix flour and salt in a medium bowl. Cut shortening into flour mixture until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing lightly with a fork until all water is added. Using your hands, form dough into a ball. Roll between two sheets of waxed paper until 1 1/2 inches larger than the diameter of the pie pan. Carefully remove crust from waxed paper and place in pie pan. Trim excess pastry from edge. Crimp edges as desired. Pierce bottom and sides of pastry with a fork. Bake at 425 degrees until brown, 12 to 15 minutes.

For the filling, in a heavy saucepan, combine flour, sugar and salt. Add scalded milk. Cook mixture over moderate heat, stirring constantly until partly thick. Add egg yolks and cook until thick, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in butter, vanilla and coconut. Pour into baked pie shell. Cool.

For the meringue, beat egg whites and sugar until stiff. Top pie with meringue and sprinkle with coconut. Bake at 350 degrees until meringue is brown and coconut is toasted.

ORANGE BREAKFAST RING

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons grated orange rind

2 (12-ounce) or 4 (7-ounce) cans refrigerated buttermilk biscuits

1/3 cup butter, melted

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

2 tablespoons orange juice

Combine sugar and orange rind. Separate biscuits. Dip each biscuit in butter and then in sugar/orange rind mixture. Stand biscuits on sides, overlapping edges, in a 9-inch tube pan or Bundt pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes until brown.

Invert onto a serving dish. Combine cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar, mixing until smooth. Add orange juice, stirring well. Spoon mixture over top of breakfast ring while still hot. Serve warm.

TOFFEE BROWNIES

1 (17.6-ounce) box brownie mix

1/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

4 (6-ounce) candy bars with almonds and toffee chips, such as Symphony

Prepare brownie mix as directed on package. Add nuts to batter.

Line a 9x13-inch pan with foil and spray foil with cooking spray. Spoon half of brownie batter on top of foil and smooth with a spatula. Place candy bars side by side on top of batter. Cover with remaining batter. Bake according to package directions. Let cool completely. Lift out of pan with foil. Peel back foil and cut into squares.

HONEY-ROASTED APPLES

2 Granny Smith apples

2 Braeburn, Jonagold or Fuji apples

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons butter

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/3 cup honey

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Core and cut unpeeled apples into 1-inch chunks. Toss with lemon juice. Place butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. When butter begins to brown, add apples and salt. Saute for 5 to 7 minutes until the edges start turning a rich brown color. Add honey, stir, and place skillet in hot oven. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Apples should be tender, but not mushy, and caramelized. Serve warm.

SIMPLY TASTY MEATLOAF

1 pound lean ground beef

3/4 cup rolled oats

1 cup tomato sauce

1 egg

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup ketchup

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon prepared mustard

Combine beef, oats, tomato sauce, egg and salt. Place in a loaf pan. Combine brown sugar, ketchup, nutmeg and mustard. Spread over meatloaf. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

GRILLED PORK TENDERLOIN

1 (1- to 1 1/2-pound) pork tenderloin

1/4 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Trim silver connective tissue from tenderloin with a sharp knife and remove any fat. Combine sugar and spices and rub onto meat. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour (overnight is best).

When ready to cook, pile charcoal on one side of grill. Oil the rack. Place tenderloin over direct heat. Cover and cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Flip and grill another 5 to 7 minutes or until the temperature reaches 145 degrees. If meat begins to char move it to indirect heat and continue to cook until temperature reaches 145, 18 minutes total. Remove from grill. Tent loosely with foil for 10 minutes. Slice and serve.

RITZY CHICKEN

2 sleeves Ritz crackers

1 stick melted butter

1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

6 medium skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

Shredded Parmesan cheese

Place crackers in a ziptop bag and crush. Stir together melted butter, mustard and Worcestershire sauce in a shallow dish. Dip chicken in butter mixture and then shake in bag to coat with crumbs. Place chicken on a baking sheet and sprinkle each breast with some Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 degrees until brown and an internal temperature reaches 180 degrees, 30 to 45 minutes.

DO YOU KNOW A GOOD COOK? Send your nominations to Ginna Parsons, Cook of the Week, P.O. Box 909, Tupelo, MS 38802. Or you can call Ginna at (662) 678-1581 or email them to ginna.parsons@journalinc.com.

ginna.parsons@journalinc.com

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